Maya Angelou's Cooking Advice: Ignore The Rules

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:10 pm

When it comes to America's approach to food, poet Maya Angelou says too much rushing around -- and too many rules -- are enough to crush good cooking. Eating good food, she says, should be a time to enlighten the spirit.

Talking with Morning Edition guest host Don Gonyea about the food of her childhood in Stamps, Ark., Angelou says her family always ate vegetables from her grandmother's garden.

"Dinner time was generally boiled; meats were smoked meats," she says. "If there was an old rooster, it might get boiled. And we'd have boiled chicken, and maybe dumplings."

Yet that dinner table was much more than a place to break bread.

"I'm concerned that Americans are losing that place of meeting," she says. "There are very few times we can be more intimate as to share food together."

Angelou has worked that spirit into her new cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart.

A Wide Variety

The recipes have ties to many different regions and traditions, something Angelou attributes to her wide-ranging travels. As a result, she says, "I cook in different languages."

"I wanted to offer to the reader a chance to actually be in Mexico or in Stockholm or in South America or in Mississippi," she says. "The book offers nice little visits to different parts of the world."

Of her recipe for "California Green Chili and Cheese Pie," Angelou says the comfort-food dish helps break some of the rules associated with cooking and eating.

"It's great for dinner. It's also great for lunch. And it would knock a cup of coffee off the table for breakfast," she says.

"You can eat anything at any time," she says. "Who made the rule that you have to have eggs in the morning, and steak at night?"

Good Cooking, And Writing

Angelou, of course, is well-known as a talented writer and poet. And she says she applies the same skills to her cooking.

"You need the best ingredients when you're going to cook," she says. "The writer has to take some nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, et cetera, and boil them up in such a way that you can throw them against the wall and they'll bounce."

"When you cook," she says, "put all these things together in a way that the person who eats says, 'Mmm, this is really good.' "

The author also has some very basic advice for readers who pick up her book: "First, sit down. And give yourself a half-hour to read something. Have more patience with yourself."

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DON GONYEA, host:

Maya Angelou once described herself as a cook, a driver and a writer. Today, she's in her early 80s and no longer drives, but she does write and she does cook. "Great Food All Day Long" is Angelou's new cookbook. It's her second cookbook.

And she joins us now from New York to talk about it.

Dr. Angelou, good morning.

Dr. MAYA ANGELOU (Author, "Great Food All Day Long"): Thank you very much. Good morning, Mr. Gonyea.

GONYEA: So as a child, you lived with your grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas...

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes. That's right.

GONYEA: What was dinnertime like growing up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, dinnertime was generally boiled. If it was an old rooster, it might get boiled. And we'd have boiled chicken and maybe dumplings, and vegetables during the spring and summer, and even fall - vegetables from my grandmother's garden: carrots, beets, turnips, potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: I'm going back a long way to remember that.

GONYEA: And meals back then, we think of the dinner table as a place, not just for breaking bread, but also for family stories and community. Was it that for you?

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes, indeed. It was. And I'm concerned that Americans are losing that place of meeting. I had a young woman who came to work for me a few weeks ago, and we had sandwiches. So she had a sandwich, and I had one. And I sat at the kitchen table, and she stood at the counter. So I said oh, no. Please come and sit down.

She said: No, Ma'am. I feel most comfortable standing here. And I realized in that second that we have raised a generation of young people who have eaten their main meals at counters. Not to sit down at the table is to lose something that is essential to community, essential to family.

GONYEA: So food cannot just be about food, you're saying.

Dr. ANGELOU: And no, it is not just about food. Food is very important, because there are very few times we can be more intimate, as to share food together.

GONYEA: Well, let's talk about one of your recipes. Just before this interview, I sampled something you call California Green Chili and Cheese Pie.

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes.

GONYEA: And it's actually a pretty simple recipe.

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes, it is. I like cheese and I like a spice, little hot peppers -not enough to frighten my taste buds, but just enough to say: Hello.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: And so - and I like the idea of custard. Now, what it does is it's great for a meal, for a dinner. It's also great for lunch. And it would knock a cup of coffee off the table for breakfast.

When I write good food - "Great Food All Day Long," I mean you can anything at any time. Who made the rule that you have to have eggs in the morning and steak at night? Not necessarily. Maybe you want to turn it around.

GONYEA: So I was struck by that recipe that you don't call for fresh green chilies. You call for a four-ounce can of diced green chilies.

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes. Yes. I prefer that - sometimes a fresh, like a bell pepper, if you want it. Or a jalapeno would be too hot, fresh. It will take over the eggs. You won't taste the eggs. You won't taste the cheese. You have to have balance.

GONYEA: You write that we should eat more healthy food. We should eat in a more healthy way.

Dr. ANGELOU: Yes.

GONYEA: There is a poem in the book about a visit you made to a health food diner...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: ...years ago. I wonder if I could get you to read that poem for us.

Dr. ANGELOU: I can recite it, but let me tell you why. I went in and I ordered rice and greens - simple. And she, the waitress, went away. I was a smoker at the time. I pulled out a package of unopened cigarettes. She came back within seconds and almost put her nose to my nose. And she whispered, she hissed: That is so nasty - filthy, filthy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: I said Miss, first, back up. That's the first thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: And then I went home and wrote this for myself. I sometimes write in self-defense.

(Reading) No sprouted wheat and soya shoots and Brussels in a cake, carrot straw and spinach raw. Today I need a steak. Health food folks around the world are thinned by anxious zeal. They look for health in seafood kelp. I count on breaded veal. No smoking signs, raw mustard green, zucchini by the ton. Uncooked kale and bodies frail are sure to make run to loins of pork and chicken thighs, and standing ribs so prime. Pork chops brown and fresh ground round, I crave them all the time. Irish stews and boiled corn beef or hot dogs by the scores, or anyplace that saves a space for smoking carnivores.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: I got my own back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: I have to ask: You are known so well to all of us as a writer and as a poet, but what kind of a connection do you see between writing and cooking, between poetry and food?

Dr. ANGELOU: Very much the same. You need the time to prepare your ingredients, and you need the time to choose your words. The writer now has to take some nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, et cetera, ball them up in such a way that you can throw them against the wall and they'll bounce.

When you cook, take these starches and proteins, and put all these things together in a way that the person who eats every day says, mm, this is really good.

GONYEA: The poet, Dr. Maya Angelou. Her second cookbook is called "Great Food All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart."

Dr. Angelou, thank you for joining us.

Dr. ANGELOU: Oh, thank you so very much. Mr. Gonyea, please tell me: Where is that name from?

GONYEA: It is an old French-Canadian name.

Dr. ANGELOU: I knew it. Do you speak French?

GONYEA: Not a lot, unfortunately.

Dr. ANGELOU: Oh, my.

GONYEA: Oh, dear, indeed. Continued good health and good cooking.

Dr. ANGELOU: And the same to you.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: Read about the time Maya Angelou was outdone in the kitchen by her husband at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Je m'appelle Don Gonyea.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.